Yaupon Holly: A Tale of Tea, Sugar, Slavery and Slander - by Mark Steele

Yaupon Holly:  A Tale of Tea, Sugar, Slavery and Slander - by Mark Steele

In the BC era (before coronavirus) I spent at least one day a week selling Yaupon Brother’s tea at farmers markets, art shows, vegan festivals, etc. and I always brought a live Yaupon tree to show people what the only naturally caffeinated plant in North America looks like. Inevitably, customers would say something like, “oh, I recognize that!” Or, “we have it in our yard!”

It always amazes me that something at the center of Native American civilization here in Florida for at least 8,000 years has fallen into complete obscurity. Yaupon was worshipped as a sacred gift from the god of purity, used as a daily drink, leveraged as the go-to medicinal plant, and carried for hundreds of miles in a vast trade network. A major part of every day life...that sort of thing.

Yaupon tea has since been trashed and forgotten in the modern world, but it was not an accident (dun dun DUNN! The plot thickens)... the demise of American tea was planned and orchestrated in England in 1789. I’m not a historian by training, but I would argue that killing Yaupon (commercially) changed the course of the British Empire, financed the English industrial revolution, and cost 6 million African slaves their lives. Here’s how it all happened...


The year 1789 was just 6 years after the signing of the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War. England spent the modern equivalent of over 18 billion dollars and lost 25,000 young men in their losing effort. They still had a staggering national debt from decades of endless wars with Spain and France, not to mention the psychological damage to the country and the utter humiliation of King George III (already on shaky ground in terms of mental health).

But all was not lost! They had the best money-making conglomerate of the era, and cash was pouring in. And it all revolved around tea, sugar and slavery.

How did this cash cow get started?

ENGLISH TEA...a brief history

A young Portuguese princess (Catarina) married into the English royal family in 1662 and wanted the drink that Portuguese merchants had been bringing back from China. Her husband (King Charles II) tried to make his new bride happy by importing the tea that Catarina was craving.


She shared it with her friends, and it was a big hit with the aristocratic ladies in the English Royal court.  It exploded commercially when the East India Company started a vast tea import/export network that brought tea to the masses. Fast forward about 100 years and the East India Company had eleven cargo ships that were sailing 24/7, bringing tea from China with a 400% return on investment.

Where does sugar come into this equation?


Asian teas have tannin, so it naturally has a bitter aftertaste that gets worse when tea is over-steeped. Tannin also causes nausea (and sometimes vomiting) when consumed on an empty stomach. The solution? Sugar! And lots of it! Add a few lumps of sugar to some elaborate steeping regimens, combine it with plenty of sweet baked goods to settle upset stomachs... and you get the perfect afternoon tea party experience. Classy!


So, how could this beautiful social ritual be a bad thing?



When the British appetite for tea grew exponentially, so did the demand for sugar... so they established their own extremely lucrative supply chain.  Step 1: They took fertile islands throughout the Caribbean by force, and enslaved the indigenous populations to work sugar plantations. When that labor force proved inadequate, they supplemented with slaves brought in from Africa (Step 2). Those slaves brought malaria, which pretty much wiped out native Caribbean tribes... leading to a labor shortage! So they implemented Step 3 and GOT MORE SLAVES.  Americans think of slavery in terms of cruel cotton plantations where 500,000 slaves were forced to labor in the fields.  Awful, yes - but this pales in comparison to sugar processing where 6 million slaves were worked to death.

The Triangular Trade route system was in full swing.


The combined income from tea, sugar and slavery was astronomical in its time. King George got 70% of his income by taxing this conglomerate and he used the proceeds to reward his followers, build up the Royal Navy and expand the Empire. Not to mention feathering his own nest.


Meanwhile, the average slave in the sugar fields of the Caribbean lived less than ten years, which meant that continued income from selling slaves was a sure thing. This system had endured for centuries and was ruthlessly defended. Then Yaupon tea came on the scene.

Yaupon... a threat?


After the Revolutionary War, American merchants started selling Yaupon Holly tea in England and throughout Europe. In some places it was labeled with its ancient name, Cassina. In other places it was sold as “South-Sea-Tea” or “Appalachine” (in France). By the year 1789, Europeans were beginning to learn about this tasty medicinal tea from America that had caffeine but didn’t have any of the bitterness of Asian teas – YUM!  The key behind Yaupon tea’s delicious taste was that Yaupon leaves are tannin-free.  NO TANNIN?! No tannin meant it needed little or no sugar, or sugary crumpets for upset stomachs, or slaves to make mountains of sugar in the Caribbean. Now this new tea player from America (and those pesky American patriots) is looking like it could be a real competitor on the tea scene.

To make matters worse, England’s historic adversary -Spain- took control of Florida (prime Yaupon country) as part of the surrender treaty of 1783. Ouch!

What happens when an evil conglomerate catches wind about the new kid on the block?


A marketing campaign ensued and it became the patriotic duty of all Englishmen to drink tea from England, but they still had a problem with other European countries where Yaupon was sold. A mistake by one of the world’s most revered scientists gave the British an opportunity to destroy their new competitor... and they took it.


In 1753 Carl Linnaeus (the revered father of taxonomy) gave Yaupon Holly its Latin name: Ilex cassine. He chose that name because Yaupon tea had been called Cassina by Europeans for around 250 years, and Native Americans used the name for a long time before that. But Linnaeus thought that Yaupon and the newly discovered Dahoon Holly were the same plant, so two different species got the same Latin name. DOH!

A plan was devised.  MUAHAHAHAHA


William Aiton was the Royal Gardener and loyal friend of King George at Kew Gardens, and he had a very simple plan to end the taxonomy discrepancy and at the same time eliminate Yaupon from the marketplace (two birds, one stone).

His smear campaign has worked brilliantly for centuries... and is still in effect today.  What’d he do? He took the Latin name Ilex cassine away from Yaupon and gave it to the Dahoon Holly exclusively, and rebranded the Yaupon Holly plant with a wonderful new Latin name:  Ilex vomitoria.

You don’t have to be a Latin scholar to know that the literal translation of this is “The Holly that makes you vomit.” Aiton surely knew that the name itself was a lie. He was very familiar with Yaupon (it had been cultivated in England for 90 years), and while the tea was gaining traction in Europe he knew that nobody was getting sick from the tea. 


Native American men in some tribes did occasionally drink and purge large amounts of what was called the “Black Drink” (usually containing Yaupon) as a way to cleanse their sins in the eyes of the God of purity: Yahola. Some theories are that other plants were added to the brew, but I am convinced that it was a learned skill that men did to restore their relationship to their God and to proclaim their righteousness and purity in front of other men. What’s the best way to prove to other warriors that you’re truly pure?  Publicly purge. 

Early white explorers (predominantly from Spain), who were at these ceremonies and drank the "Black Drink" did not get sick, and numerous studies at several modern universities confirm that Yaupon Holly tea has no emetic properties. Regardless, the name has persisted and so has the misperception of what we think is the world’s best tea. In other words, the plan worked brilliantly! The demand for American Yaupon fell to zero overnight and has pretty much stayed there for centuries. It is obvious to me that William Aiton succeeded in his goal of commercially ruining a competitor of the Empire...thus saving the tea, sugar and slavery industries of England from the threat of American tea (grown by traitors to the crown). Our science expert and mentor, Dr. Jack Putz (famous botanist at the University of Florida) thinks that Aiton was on the payroll of the British East India company. We will never know for sure.

On a personal note, I would not choose to start a business around a product with a Latin name of Ilex vomitoria. Lots of people that I meet at markets say that they will go home and “Google our tea.”  I cringe when I hear this because the first thing they will see is the work of William Aiton: Ilex vomitoria (Ait.). Look it up and you’ll see. GAH!

I often wonder how many more customers we’d have if Yaupon had a different name. Even though science is on our side and we have the world’s best tea, it has been (and will be) an uphill battle to overcome this stain (lie) from 230 years ago.

As I write this, 30 million Americans have recently lost their jobs. 45,000 have lost jobs in Florida due to a disease that has pretty much wiped out the Florida citrus industry, with 31,000 more in jeopardy. At the same time, America imports over 200,000 tons of tea from Asia every year while Florida farmers are in desperate need of a new crop. We think Yaupon can and will transform the future of agriculture here in America and so our work continues…in spite of William Aiton.

As I said before, I’m convinced that our ancient, historic and sacred American tea is the best in the world. Please see for yourself by using the promo code “TEAPLOT” at your next checkout for 10% off.

Stay well and happy steeping…


Mark Steele

Co-founder, Yaupon Brothers American Tea Company


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